AHA News: This Fitness Instructor Had a Stroke at 36

AHA News: This Fitness Instructor Had a Stroke at 36
AHA News: This Fitness Instructor Had a Stroke at 36

Photo courtesy: Lisa Richov

FRIDAY, June 9, 2023 (American Heart Association News) -- Jessica Diaz was amazed. As she took classes in barre – a combination of yoga, Pilates and ballet that used 2-pound weights – her body became transformed. And unlike other group exercises, she left the class feeling more energized than depleted.

That changed after the birth of her second child. She had gained 80 pounds during her pregnancy and felt that the workouts weren't tailored to women who had just given birth. She realized there was a niche there to be filled.

Diaz became a certified instructor and began teaching barre online and at a studio in Boston. After about a year, she shed the excess weight. She soon became fitter than ever.

So what happened after teaching a class one morning seemed puzzling.

Diaz was showering when she felt a shooting pain on the left side of her body. Her left arm became weak. She felt pins and needles in her leg. She could barely step over the side of the tub. Then she developed a severe headache. "It was 10 times worse than any migraine I've ever had," she said.

She spent a few hours waiting for the symptoms to stop. Finally, she went to the emergency room. Doctors determined she'd had a stroke. "I thought stroke only happens to old people or really sick people," she said. "It took me a while to process that I could have a stroke at 36."

Diaz asked the doctor when she could go home. Based on her symptoms, he guessed that between her hospitalization and rehab, it would be about five weeks. Worried about her husband, Charles, and their two young children, she burst into tears.

Things changed quickly. When she woke up the next morning, her symptoms had vanished. After only four nights in the hospital, she returned home.

Further testing revealed the likely cause of Diaz's stroke – two problems that had been lurking since she was born.

One issue was a genetic mutation that causes blood clots to form more easily. It's called factor V Leiden. The other issue was a hole in her heart that was supposed to close after birth but didn't; it's called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO. Putting the two together, doctors believe a blood clot probably escaped through the hole and reached her brain, causing the stroke.

Several months later, doctors repaired the PFO by implanting a mesh covering. Afterward, doctors advised her to take it easy for a few months to avoid ripping the mesh. She needed no convincing.

In addition to that fear, she worried that she would have another stroke. For example, a few days after her surgery, she felt dizzy and developed a headache and tingling in her left leg. She called 911 and spent several hours in the emergency room. Ultimately, doctors told her she was probably experiencing anxiety.

Dr. Natalia Rost, Diaz's stroke and vascular neurologist, had an idea for how Diaz could regain control of her personal narrative. It involved hearing other stroke survivors tell their stories at an American Heart Association event.

Diaz went, although somewhat reluctantly. It turned out just as Rost hoped. "I was amazed at hearing other people's stories and how similar they were feeling," Diaz said. "That helped me so much."

In turn, she made it her mission to help others. She has attended several of the AHA's Go Red for Women events, led her own fundraisers and shared her story on local TV and via social media. One day, she received a call from a woman in her neighborhood who'd seen her story. She had experienced the same symptoms and knew to call 911 when she had a stroke. Now she was home recovering and wanted Diaz to know how she'd helped.

"That was a turning point," Diaz said. "I knew then that I would continue sharing my story."

In November 2021, she testified virtually before the Massachusetts State House in support of a bill that would allow paramedics to transport patients who appear to be having a stroke directly to a stroke certified hospital instead of automatically going to the nearest hospital, regardless of whether it's equipped to care for stroke patients.

Diaz said she worked with her state representative to push for requiring Massachusetts physicians to test women for factor V Leiden before prescribing birth control pills, which may raise the risk of blood clots. While the legislation hasn't passed, she's proud to have brought awareness to the condition.

Every telling of her story also helps inform people that stroke can happen to anyone at any age.

Rost said that despite all the campaigns over decades to raise awareness about stroke symptoms, people still often don't recognize the signs, which can include facial drooping, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, slurred speech or difficulty finding the right words, dizziness, vision loss or trouble walking.

"I counsel young women that if something is happening to your body that is unusual, that you've never experienced before or that just feels wrong, don't hesitate to seek help," Rost said. "You have to advocate for yourself."

Diaz, now 46, feels like the stroke was a turning point in her life. She's focused on her overall health and wellness, staying fit and watching what she eats. "I make choices based on fueling my body, and my weight hasn't changed," she said. "How you look has nothing to do with how healthy you are, or how well you are."

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved.

By Tate Gunnerson, American Heart Association News

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